Awana Hettie Kersey Painter was born to Quaker parents, Jesse K. Painter and Sarah (Early) Painter in Jersey City, New Jersey. Her family, which could be traced back to colonial times, was full of strong women. Awana’s grandmother, Dr. Esther “Hettie” Kersey Painter, was a large influence on her life. Hettie studied medicine and graduated from the Penn Medical University in 1860. She became a well-known figure on the battlefields during the Civil War, as she volunteered her medical services to the Union Army. In addition to working in the hospitals, Hettie and her family, which included her husband, John, and two sons, Jesse and Leicester, were supporters of the anti-slavery movement. Their home was always open to fugitive slaves. In the years after the Civil War, Hettie opened many clinics across the country including Salt Lake City, Sacramento, Cheyenne, Washington, D.C., Richmond, before finally settling in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Shortly after Awana’s birth, the family traveled west and settled in Cheyenne. Her father and uncle were telegraph operators on the Union & Pacific Railroad. After living in Cheyenne, Longmount, and Denver, the family moved to Houston, Texas, in 1875. There were very few schools in Texas, and therefore Awana’s education was sporadic. As an eager reader, Awana was highly educated in some subjects but less knowledgeable in others. She was sent to a young ladies seminary in Belvedere, Pennsylvania, in 1879. The next year, she attended Friends Central in Philadelphia. After her schooling in the east, Awana returned to her parents in San Antonio, Texas in 1881. While living in Texas, Awana did considerable writing of poetry and was appointed poetess of the Texas Press Association.
After her father was transferred to Nebraska in 1884, Awana moved to Hastings and taught elocution. It was here she met local businessman, John Slaker. The couple were married January 22, 1889. They had three daughters: Elizabeth, Ruth, and Awana. John and his brother-in-law, Charles Dietrich, opened the German National Bank in Hastings, Nebraska, while Awana taught dramatics and physical fitness from her home studio. She was involved in many organizations including the George Eliot Club. She was active in the Christian Science church, having joined in June 1904. Awana was elected First Reader from 1909-1912 and ran services for the local church branch held in the Carnegie Library Auditorium.